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Curatorial Practices
Curatorial Designs in the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography Today: Part 1
by Tarek Elhaik and George E. Marcus

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Curatorial Designs in the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography Today: a Conversation between Tarek Elhaik (1) and George E. Marcus (2)

This dialogue between George Marcus and Tarek Elhaik begins by re-visiting the shifts in research practice and paradigms initiated more than twenty years ago by the Writing Culture discussions and proceeds to evaluate the after-life of those debates in contemporary anthropological thought and practice. Conceptual affinities are exchanged, probed and refined between a key figure of the Writing Culture moment and an anthropologist trained in the aftermath of those discussions. The conversation brings a set of key strategic concepts from the cosmopolitan modernist repertoire dear to both anthropologists (montage, design, installation) to bear upon the emblematic figure of fieldwork. It folds Marcus’ call in the early 90s for an ethnographics as an antidote to the hopeless realism of ethnographic films and texts and recent performative “para-sites” at his Center for Ethnography at UC Irvine with Elhaik’s deployment of curatorial practice as a procedure, method and mode of theoretical production that opens the possibility for thinking and composing an ‘installation book’. The conversation proposes these emerging figures and new experiments with form as alternate modes of mediation of ethnography in process and, perhaps, as surrogates to fieldwork itself.

Marcus: What I miss most after the Writing Culture discussions of the 80’s is access to the materials and processes that have produced the very interesting kinds of books and films that followed this period of critique. I find that I want to know a lot more about the research process in order to discuss what the films or books are about. But this is by no means a call by me for a return to the kind of fieldwork accounts and stories that led up to the Writing Culture debates. Indeed, given the immense changes in technologies of communication and media since the 1990s, the ethnographic text or film no longer seems to be the most relevant or cogent object to which the Writing Culture questions about representation should be directed. Those questions are still of key importance but they should now be embedded in all the diverse operations that are performed and transacted in the name of the classic term- fieldwork.

Fieldwork is something other today than the means to ethnography (conceived as a resulting book or film for the archive, library or most public reception possible). It encompasses a variety of forms of composition of research material that not only deserve their own expressions, both inside the intimacies and specificities of fieldwork but also alongside it as well as performances, productions, and collaborations with varying levels of reception in mind. Research today requires strategizing and imagining its own receptions, of which the originating disciplinary community is just one. The problem of representation is thus organic to the fieldwork process itself. This is not exactly a new insight, but new scales and technologies of communication have pushed the thinking about this problem into the terrains and relations of the process of inquiry itself, for which Malinowskian style stories of self-other, ethical reflexivity are no longer adequate.

Yet, it is precisely this process which is most opaque today. We need forms, experiments with forms, alternative and performative modes of conducting research to constitute theoretical and other kinds of discussions of anthropological problems. These discussions need to be part of the same ‘stuff’ of the world that ethnography is about, which requires the means, the forms, to turn the collections and materials of fieldwork today ‘inside out’ for more diversely constituted audiences. Current explicit concerns in anthropology about collaboration and public anthropology, I think, are symptomatic expressions of this tendency to move beyond mere textual outcomes and to create forms for engagements with ethnography in process.

My own personal evolution in this direction since Writing Culture is marked by the mid 1990s essay on the emergence of multi-sited ethnography. This was before the expansion of the internet, but it did envision, in a tentative way, a terrain in which fieldwork could no longer be what it used to be. At the same time I became interested in certain projects of installation and conceptual art that involved inquiry similar to fieldwork in their production. In a sense, these projects encompassed the sorts of alternative forms for thinking, performing, and discussing ethnographic inquiry while doing it that I believe is so important today. In a designed way, installation and performance art projects embed the product of inquiry within its doing. While I don’t think ethnography is or should be the same as these art movements, my attraction to the latter captures something in terms of practice that I think ethnographic inquiry is lacking and needs very much.

Finally, the development of my post- Writing Culture position, so to speak, is very much informed by the conditions of teaching research to ethnographers-in-the-making today. The orthodoxies of method and the independent mindedness and ambition of bright apprentices create the productive frictions in terms of which new (and necessarily authoritative) forms for the production of knowledge within ,as well as out of ,the contemporary conditions of ‘doing fieldwork’, can be designed. And, yes, for me, the notion of design (with borrowings from design thinking and pedagogy, which is a vast academic and professional industry in itself) has become a convenient and so far congenial category with which to think about the introduction of new forms into the venerable practice of fieldwork that collapses theory work and problem-defining into it and deepens it. Once I found its use for me, I discovered the term design, like collaboration, has been appropriated, almost with viral speed in recent times, to reconceive decoratively or more substantively the knowledge making practices in a range of disciplines and enterprises today. The Center for Ethnography, that I founded at the University of California, Irvine, has become a main venue or lab for me to explore these post-Writing Culture issues, at first around the fashion (or unfulfilled passion) for collaboration today, and now around the notion of design which incorporates the desire for collaborative solidarities of research.

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